Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976 ), 424 pp.
Like Alexander Boldizar’s The Ugly, Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace is a “Slovak Novel in English” on account of a certain sleight of hand on my part. It was written and published in English and to my knowledge has never been translated into Slovak. But like The Ugly, it concerns the lives of Slovaks in America at the wrong end of the justice system—though where Boldizar’s story is comical and absurdist, Bell’s is realistic and humane.
Out of This Furnace spans three generations, from patriarch Kracha’s emigration from his small eastern Slovak village to Pennsylvania, to his daughter Mary and her husband Mike’s failed expectations to rise above the poverty and backbreaking labor of their parents, to grandson Dobie’s gradual politicization into the role of a union activist. Bell knew whereof he spoke: no small amount of the story tracks with his own family history, though unlike his third-generation counterpart Dobie, Bell escaped the drudgery of the steel town as a young man and never went back. But he certainly looked back, and in so doing recorded the emblematic story of Slovaks in America.
America’s shallow roots as a political entity mean that we are short on mythology, so we continually convert our past into usable mythology. Bell follows this pattern. Grandfather Kracha is a larger-than-life character, not exactly a Paul Bunyan—Slovaks are too put-upon a people for such grandeur—but not a mere peasant, either. He falls for a mythic creature, too, “Black Susan” (another figure based in real history), a dark-skinned and lusty widow who causes his downfall from upward mobility. As does booze. There’s a lot of booze (these are Slovaks, after all), but when the only alternative is the outrageously underpaid and life-threatening labor at Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills, it’s hard to browbeat the downtrodden for “making bad choices.”
Mary and Mike come a bit more into the light; they’re more like a window display of good old American family values. Not that they were flourishing suburbanites, by no means. But their love for each other and their children, their continual striving against all setbacks, their almost philosophical ruminations on forces beyond their control and their puzzling out providence’s apparent refusal to reward their uprightness against all odds—all of this represents the best of American immigrant values. Which is what makes the American entrepreneur/robber baron’s inexplicably cruel maltreatment of them, from extorting wages to extorting votes, all the harder to bear.
The final section shifts from mythology and romance to something like journalism. A great deal of it details union negotiations with the steel industry, and it hardly needs saying that the storytelling suffers a bit in the process, though Dobie’s marriage with Julie provides joyful leaven. In another classically American move, the climax of the story is a trip to Washington to testify—in 1941, when the book was published, perhaps it was easier to believe in the essential righteousness at the heart of the American political process—leaving a triumphant Dobie ready to welcome his infant child to a better world.
Bell’s book is, of course, not singular in its detailed record of the immigrant labor experience (if you never have, rush right out and read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and its story of Lithuanians in Chicago), nor even of the Slovak experience in Pennsylvania’s steel mills. In fact, just a year later, Marcia Davenport’s Valley of Decision was published telling much the same story, but more from the point of view of management and the Irish underclass; Slovaks were not literate enough to win a speaking part.
It is the very specific Slovak character of Bell’s book that makes it unique among American novels. His characters want nothing but pork chops for breakfast and pepper their speech with Slovak expressions in an idiosyncratic spelling that an English-speaker who had only heard but never read Slovak would come up with. Most of the characters are Greek Catholics, some Roman Catholics, and much of life revolves around what happens in church. Continually they bristle against their maltreatment by a previous generation of immigrants that sneers at the “Hunkies”—that is, Hungarians, because at the time Slovaks emigrated not from an independent Slovakia or Czechoslovakia but from the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Irish and “English” couldn’t be bothered to distinguish them.
Reading this book so many decades later, and yet when immigration has become a hotly contested issue in the U.S. again, I am struck again at the ongoing pattern of transfering guilt, distrust, and contempt to the next set of newcomers. Nowadays, as the descendant of Slovak immigrants on one side and Germans and Danes on the other, I am indistinguishable from the mass of white people. But this is a development with time. Once Slovaks were despised as a poor and ignorant minority not worth protecting in America’s industrial wastelands, while Germans were spies and conspirators with two evil empires causing two world wars. (And I’m sure it was worth somebody’s while to insult the Danes, but I have no idea what they would have said.) “White privilege” bestows upon people like me unasked-for and undeserved advantages over other Americans—but in the process also strips me of my own history and makes me generic.
At the same time, this ever-repeated process exposes the fear of new immigrants for the indefensible xenophobia that it is: today’s scary foreigner is tomorrow’s respectable taxpayer. It’s no excuse to say that the color or religion is the same, because even “white” European and Christian immigrants of the past were not seen as the same as the “old” Americans but as frighteningly different. Yet look how docile we all are now!
For all its Slovak specificity, Out of This Furnace builds to a conclusion that would warm a founding father’s heart. Three generations into it, the still rather Slovak Dobie ruminates, “All I know is there’s certain things I’ve got to have or I don’t want to go on living. I want certain things bad enough to fight for them, bad enough to die for them. Patrick Henry, Junior—that’s me. Give me liberty or give me death. But he meant every word of it and by God I think I do too.”